1. Charles Dutoit, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, 1986

Holst - The Planets (Dutoit, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, 1986)

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Up until I embarked upon this foolhardy escapade of listening to as many different Planets recordings as possible and then writing about them, my favourite version by far was this recording by Dutoit and his French-Canadian comrades. I consider this to be the deluxe recording of The Planets. There’s not a musical hair out of place. The recording is rich and opulent, and the performances are everything you’d want from each movement. Now, you might not go for the everything-in-its-place, exceptionally-well-mannered approach that Charlie and co. employ, but I respond to it in a major way. Dutoit has his fans, and he has his detractors. Full disclosure: I’m in the “I’m A Dutoit Fan!” camp. For me, this Planets is magnificence upon magnificence. Everything about it, from the playing to the recording, is absolutely right. As far as I’m concerned, recordings of The Planets don’t get any better than this.

That was how I felt before I embarked upon this foolhardy escapade. Now that I’ve listened to a gazillion + 1 recordings of The Planets, I think it’s time I revisited it to see if anything’s changed.

I’m now listening to “Mars”, and it’s astounding. (Mind you, I’m listening to it loud.) Granted, the sound of the orchestra is very polished, but the performance is… oh my. This is a “Mars” with a whole load of heft. At 5:25 there’s a very tiny trumpet mistake (it’s almost unnoticeable). While “Mars” is chugging along, I’d like to point out the hall acoustic. It’s ideal for this recording. Back to the music. The orchestral bang at 6:07: Wow. And the orchestral death throes (starting at 6:08) are astonishing.

“Venus” is perfectly peaceful. And the playing is incredible (as in “I can’t believe this music could be played that well”). The handling of the dynamics from 1:55-2:20 is a masterclass in how an orchestra can cease to be an orchestra and just become music. The last minute of “Venus” (from 8:32 onwards) is wonderful, but I must point out the last 30 seconds (from 9:05) – they are unutterably beautiful. Is this the best “Venus” on record? For me, the answer is: Yes indeedy.

“Mercury” is played exceptionally well. The orchestral balance is superb. From 1:03-1:25 is a neat little trick: The harp makes its presence felt by playing a little louder than the other instruments. But immediately after that initial “Hi there, I’m the harp” it blends in, volume-wise, with the rest of the orchestra. Now, because the harp introduced itself, you know it’s there, but when it’s in amongst the other instruments of the orchestra, and isn’t any louder or quieter than anyone else, you can hear what it’s doing whilst everything else is happening. That’s a neat trick. And because of that trick, I can hear the harp very quietly (almost imperceptibly) supporting all the solo instruments in that little section. Marvellous.

The first part of “Jupiter” (all the jolly stuff before the Big Tune, from 0:00-3:04) is maybe not as characterful (gasp!) as it can be in other versions, but it’s still splendid. However, when we get to the Big Tune (4:04-5:02) we hear the music in all its glory. Man oh man that’s a great tune. I’m pleased to say that after the Big Tune, when all the jolly stuff returns, it’s full of character. Just have a listen to the swirling music from 7:27-7:40. Magnificent.

Now we get to the serious stuff. “Saturn” is played with complete seriousness. There are no shenanigans (such as playing too fast, too slow, or messing about with phrasing, dynamics, etc.) whatsoever. It’s simply played for maximum emotional effect. Before I probably go into raptures about the next movement (Hello, “Uranus”!), I want to mention the organ at the end of “Saturn”. I used to be a hi-fi nut in the 1980s (not so much nowadays). This CD of The Planets was one I took with me to audition speakers. I took this particular disc to test the low-frequency response, and the organ at the end of “Saturn” was what I used. Those low notes of the organ, starting at 8:01, are mind-blowing. Any speaker that can handle that bass gets a big tick from me. By the way, I think the last 20 seconds (starting at 9:35, after the organ has faded away) is perfection.

Speaking of perfection, this “Uranus” really is fantastic. The orchestral balance is ideal (just hear how the timpani at 2:04-2:06 play at a cheekily low volume), and the playing is… Oops. I think I might be overdoing it with the hyperbole. Sorry about that. I’ll try to restrain myself. Maybe I can find something wrong with it. Er… Nope. As “Uranus” continues to march on its merry way, I’m marvelling at everything in it. I know this isn’t helping. I should be as objective as possible, but this recording… The organ and the orchestra at 5:15 – it’s jaw-dropping.

Now for “Neptune”. (And I’m wondering if I’ve run out of superlatives.) “Neptune” has all the mystery you want – and then some. For example, have a listen from 2:07-2:54. (That celesta gives me chills.) And in that section there are one or more instruments that sound deliberately out of tune just enough to add to the tension. (It might be accidental, but with this recording I doubt it.) When the organ comes in at 3:38, the “spookiness” factor goes up a couple of notches. And then the organ stops dead. [Shudder] The women’s choir appears at 4:22. Can I use the word “spectral” here? I’d like to, but at this point you might be saying, “Yeah, yeah, you love this recording. Sheesh, you don’t have to go on about it.” You’re right. I should really wrap this up and come to some kind of conclusion (in other words, stop typing fawning gibberish).

All I’ll say is this: Yep, Dutoit’s Planets is as good as I remember it. It’s the most satisfying version I know. And it’s the one I return to most often. This is exactly how I like to hear The Big P.

Portentous Announcement: This is the best Planets I’ve ever heard.

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9 thoughts on “1. Charles Dutoit, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, 1986

  1. John R. Lewis III March 6, 2015 / 9:47 pm

    After I read your comments on the Levine Planets, I thought you might be headed here for your number one choice. While not the most exciting version in the catalogue, it may well be the most beautiful. It has certainly deserved all the attention it’s gotten since it first appeared.

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    • Peter March 7, 2015 / 1:17 am

      Yes indeed. To me, every bit of praise for Dutoit’s Planets is well deserved.

      As for Levine, I look at his recording as The Flairy Floss Planets: Great when you’re eating it listening to it, but forgettable as soon as you’ve finished.

      The most scathing comment I’ve seen about Levine’s CD was in Mark Jordan’s review of Walter Susskind’s Planets, which, although it was nominally about Susskind’s recording, it actually ended up being a survey of about a dozen Planets recordings. Mark said this about the Levine:

      “1990 saw the release of a pops-concert Planets from James Levine and the Chicago Symphony on Deutsche Grammophon. I remember hearing the concert broadcast that preceded this recording, and I remember being shocked to hear Levine say in the intermission interview that music like ‘The Planets’ was worth performing, even if it wasn’t profound. This statement demonstrated Levine’s complete ignorance of what this music is about, but then again, his performance proves it all by itself. All is played for effect, with nary a sign of any real commitment. The sound is very crassly in-your-face, although it does show off the vaunted athleticism of the Chicago brass section. Of course, it also favors the brass so much, the strings could have stayed home for the loud movements. Not even the clumsy Bernard Hermann “Phase-4” Decca recording from the mid-1970’s is as bad a presentation as this. Though Hermann was out of his element trying to grapple with Holst’s big score, he at least made an attempt to perform it sincerely. Levine, on the other hand, briskly pumps the climaxes, then beats time until the next loud part arrives. Not only is it an insult to Holst, it is an insult to Levine’s own considerable talent. Levine is far too fine a conductor to make a disc like this.”

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  2. John R. Lewis III March 6, 2015 / 10:19 pm

    p.s. I heard Dutoit conduct this with the Philadelphia Orchestra a few years ago, and the audience was really stunned by it. Clearly Dutoit loved the piece, as the recording also makes clear.

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  3. wonderboy September 20, 2016 / 4:53 pm

    this is really a winner in all categories. spectacular sound and perfect performance !

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  4. Delirious Lab December 24, 2016 / 1:59 am

    I had the pleasure of hearing the Montréal Symphony play the Planets a few years ago, in their brand new concert hall… What incredible sounds, the kind of which I am unable to hear on any recording in my living room (unless I were willing to re-mortgage my house for a better sound system).

    Although Dutoit is gone, these folks still play 20th-century music like no other band on earth.

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  5. papadarkindy February 22, 2017 / 11:29 am

    This is a clean, well performed recording with a lot of attention to detail. Compared to Boult’s readings, though, it definitely doesn’t have a lot of dynamics. Mars, for example, gets as loud as it ever will by about 1:30, and stays there till the end. Boult’s has a little more range from loud to soft, just where the music needs it, and it is used to great effect at the end. At least in the Dutoit version, though, the tonality of that massive final note is not lost beneath the thunder of tympani… I don’t find a lot to choose from between the two.

    The same is true with Jupiter; it sounds like Dutoit uses up all of his dynamic range at the beginning and the piece feels like it needs to go louder/softer but can’t. I get the distinct impression that Dutoit is trying to get the orchestra to render the whole suite as perfectly as they can, while Boult just wants to engage the listener and get them to enjoy it as much as he obviously does.

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  6. Freakuency Ueberload March 2, 2017 / 9:29 am

    Yes.
    I fell in love with this recording as a physics major in college, and then some twenty-four years later had the exceptionally good fortune of attending a performance of The Planets by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Dutoit. Feeling the floor beneath me undulate during the deep bass rumbles in Saturn and Neptune was transformative for me: the experience of music transcended the ears and encompassed the entire body. That performance remains the highlight of my musical experiences.
    I’ve very much enjoyed reading your reviews, and am happy to know many others like me appreciate and value Holst’s inspired work.

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    • Peter March 2, 2017 / 10:24 am

      Howdy, Freakster

      “Yes.
      I fell in love with this recording as a physics major in college, and then some twenty-four years later had the exceptionally good fortune of attending a performance of The Planets by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Dutoit. Feeling the floor beneath me undulate during the deep bass rumbles in Saturn and Neptune was transformative for me: the experience of music transcended the ears and encompassed the entire body. That performance remains the highlight of my musical experiences.
      I’ve very much enjoyed reading your reviews, and am happy to know many others like me appreciate and value Holst’s inspired work.”

      To all of the above: Excellent.

      Like

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